For all the hand-wringing so far about how dismal this summer's box office is, for all the theorizing about the good weather and the economy and sports playoffs keeping people away from the multiplex, the reason may be as simple as the poor quality of the movies themselves.
Maybe the reason no one is going to the movies this summer is ... that the movies kinda bite.
So far, the 2010 summer season is shaping up to be one of the worst ever in terms of the number of tickets sold, with ultra-hyped movies performing well below expectations. This year, the usual hype isn't working, and people are staying home rather than going to see a marquee listing an especially unappealing litter of sequels, spinoffs and remakes. There are still some movies yet to come this summer that could rescue the remaining months from being completely forgettable, but so far, Hollywood hasn't given us much reason to check out the latest would-be blockbusters.
By whatever metric you choose, this summer has been a disappointment so far. This most recent weekend (June 4 to 6) was down in receipts 24 percent from the same weekend last year (which saw the release of 'The Hangover,' a surprise non-sequel hit) and down 29 percent from the same weekend in 2008 (which saw the release of another non-sequel hit, 'Kung Fu Panda'). According to the Los Angeles Times, total box office receipts for last weekend's Memorial Day holiday were the lowest for the May holiday since Memorial Day weekend of 2001 and the least number of tickets sold since the holiday in 1993. May box office was down 10 percent from last year, despite the extra surcharge on such 3-D movies as 'Shrek Forever After' and 'How to Train Your Dragon.' According to box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, attendance for the year is down 3 percent, despite such winter and spring hits as 'Avatar,' 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Dragon.'
Almost every major summer movie has performed below expectations, some drastically so (as in the cases of 'Shrek' and 'Sex and the City 2,' which opened tens of millions of dollars below their predicted debut targets). The current 'Shrek' has had the worst box office performance of the four 'Shrek' movies (even with inflation and 3-D surcharges), but it has remained the top-grossing movie for three weeks only because the competition (including 'Sex 2,' 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,''MacGruber,' 'Get Him to the Greek,''Killers,''Marmaduke' and 'Splice') has been even weaker.
It's worth noting that almost all of the major releases so far are sequels, spinoffs (like 'Get Him to the Greek,' built around a supporting character from 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall'), movies based on other properties ('MacGruber,' based on a 'Saturday Night Live' sketch; 'Prince of Persia,' based on a videogame; 'Marmaduke,' based on a comic strip), familiar stories retold ('Robin Hood'), or simply movies that seem to echo other movies ('Killers' seems to reprise 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith,' while 'Splice' recalls 'Species'). The Hollywood Reporter calls the audience's aversion to these movies "sequelitis," noting that nearly every movie so far this summer is a retread that has disappointed viewers as well as critics. (Even 'Iron Man 2,' which wasn't awful but wasn't as beloved as the original either, and which is the summer's biggest hit to date, opened below expecations.)
Of course, the critics' opinions are not supposed to matter in the summer, with the studios' carefully built and expensive marketing campaigns and wide-release strategies designed to make an end run around critics and convince audiences that each new opening is an event not to be missed. But this year, poor word of mouth among moviegoers has been in sync with critics' underwhelmed assessments. That doesn't mean moviegoers are paying attention to the critics, but they do seem to be recognizing what critics have long been saying: that even a movie season built around escapism and spectacle ought to offer some freshness, creativity and cleverness.
By this time last summer, moviegoers had already made blockbusters of a number of movies, including 'Up,' 'The Hangover,' 'Star Trek,' 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,' 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine,' 'Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,' 'Terminator Salvation' and 'Angels & Demons.' Of these, the first three pleased critics as well. The others had strong enough hype to overcome bad reviews, especially 'Transformers,' which grossed more than any 2009 movie except 'Avatar.' (This year's 'Transformers 2' is 'Sex and the City 2,' a scathingly-reviewed movie that nonetheless delivers on its promise of mindless escapism and lavish spectacle to its gender-specific target audience.) Later in the summer of 2009, there would be such critically acclaimed movies as 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,' 'The Proposal,' 'Inglourious Basterds,' 'District 9,' 'Julie & Julia,' '(500) Days of Summer,' 'Ponyo,' and the year's eventual Best Picture Oscar winner, 'The Hurt Locker.' Most of these movies were hits with audiences as well.
Still, does this summer's dismal performance so far at the box office and among critics make it the worst movie summer ever? Not necessarily. My nominee for the worst summer ever is 2001, which had a long litany of truly wretched movies: 'The Mummy Returns,' 'Pearl Harbor,' 'Rush Hour 2,' 'Jurassic Park III,' Tim Burton's 'Planet of the Apes,' 'American Pie 2,' 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,' 'Dr. Dolittle 2,' 'America's Sweethearts,' 'Cats & Dogs,' 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire,' 'Scary Movie 2,' 'The Score,' 'Swordfish,' 'Evolution,' 'The Animal,' 'Rat Race,' 'What's the Worst That Could Happen?,' 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin,' 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,' 'Angel Eyes,' 'Summer Catch,' 'Crazy/Beautiful,' 'Original Sin,' 'Osmosis Jones,' 'American Outlaws' and several others. (In fairness, that summer also had such memorable movies as the first 'Shrek,' 'The Fast and the Furious,' 'Legally Blonde,' 'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,' 'Moulin Rouge,' 'The Deep End,' 'Sexy Beast' and 'Ghost World.')
At the box office that summer, the trend even for hit movies like the 'Mummy' and 'Rush Hour' sequels was to open strongly but then decline more than 50 percent the following week due to poor word of mouth. In other words, it was another summer of sequels and spinoffs that didn't live up to the hype. Still, the current summer would have to work really hard to surpass the number of lame movies from nine summers ago.
There are other reasons this summer might not be as bad as billed. According to the Los Angeles Times, international box office seems to be making up for the weak sales at home, especially for 'Sex and the City 2,' 'Prince of Persia' and 'Robin Hood.' At the domestic box office, two of the summer's top 10 hits to date are 'Letters to Juliet' and 'Just Wright,' both of which are light romances based on original ideas, filmed with modest starpower and even more modest budgets. Along with 'SATC 2,' they might convince Hollywood that there's room during the summer (and year-round) for movies that strongly appeal to women, movies that have more to offer than guns and fireballs and 3-D effects.
And there are still movies yet to come that could pull the summer out of both its critical and box office slumps. This month will see 'Toy Story 3,' a movie eagerly awaited by Pixar fans (which is everybody), and 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse' (which should be an enormous hit regardless of the reviews). Next month sees 'Inception,'Christopher Nolan's follow-up to 'The Dark Knight.' And August sees Julia Roberts starring in the movie version of best-seller 'Eat, Pray, Love.'
Of these four movies, only one, Nolan's sci-fi spy thriller, is based on an original idea; the rest are sequels or adaptations. If these movies turn out to be hits and critic-pleasers, they'll prove that it's not sequelitis that's keeping audiences out of theaters. It's just bad-sequelitis. And maybe the studios will realize that attracting people to theaters by making movies they actually want to see isn't such a radical idea.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.